Home > Poetry > Arlo Bates’ “A Winter Twilight”

Arlo Bates’ “A Winter Twilight”

I want to get into the daily writing habit and shake off some of the hesitancy to write that’s left 10 (count ’em, 10) posts in the purgatory of drafts. And I’ve decided that I’m never too busy to write. So here it is in the 15 minutes I have before work: some preliminary thoughts on a poem that gripped me, the text of a piece my college choir had commissioned, Arlo Bates’ “A Winter Twilight.” I’ve put the full text at the end for reference (haven’t figured out all these blog formatting things yet–we need LaTeX for blogs!) I won’t do much analysis here. Line-by-line readings have been the death of my poetic understanding before: but here is the substance of a first encounter with the poem, the first-striking things.

First, the sound and rhythm. Notice the shortening syllable count in the first four lines: a relatively wordy introduction (still with surprises, like the gem “beryl”), building up forward momentum with the enjambment. Then two lines that balance each other in their parallel character: both four syllables, with the same pattern of stresses, both reaching toward the spaciousness of a five syllable line with their contraction and elision. And the rhythmic pattern of these lines suggesting airiness and flight. Then a real, solid four syllable line to close the idea, the harder syllables of “dying day” and the increased stresses suggesting some finality, an arrival point.

But then a shift again–a five-line idea, balancing shrouds and lights, a host of qualifiers that can be steps away or towards: the “first fair evening star” is brought forth by that description, as the sense of the dying day recedes by “half.” The first star we see is imbued with human significance: of all the ones out there, it’s special to us, chosen for no particular reason but that we are connected to it by an accident of perception. The “half” here is supreme comfort, not a backing away: this star retains the majesty of the crystalline heavens, but it touches the speaker as a human: and “half human” isn’t a diminishing here, it adds to the greatness of the star. The lines are longer: they need room for amplifying adjectives and the telling of a story, where at first there was only a peek at the scene.

And to close, returning directly to the personal. The act of perception over, and rumination replacing it: calm rhythms, long adjectives, the lessening of pain by its diffusion, rendered with the unstressed syllables now used. When the stresses come back, in the last two lines, it’s to render the hardnesses that are being taken away.

Worth taking a look at the delicate interweaving of rhymes here too, which connect these three different parts of the poem I’ve delineated and circle back and forward in a meaningful way. But that’s more time than I have to spend on this.

PALE beryl sky, with clouds
        Hued like dove’s wing,
        O’ershadowing
        The dying day,
And whose edge half enshrouds         5
  The first fair evening star,
  Most crystalline by far
Of all the stars that night enring,
  Half human in its ray,—
What blessed, soothing sense of calm         10
Comes with this twilight,—sovereign balm
  That takes at last the bitter sting
  Of day’s keen pain away.
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